Monday 27 May 2013

Lost Track: Circuits of the Yore XII - Dutch Grand Prix - Part I

Last Turn of Circuit Park Zandvoort
Two memories come to my mind as I write this. Mind you, these are just the two out of many memorable ones I have since the time I have known F1. The decision to visit Singapore GP and watching the first ever night race in 2008 tops the list and secondly driving around the streets of Monaco to complete a lap on a busy traffic day. I was happy with the latter because I tested myself mentally with the circuit route to replicate the one used in Monaco Grand Prix. Let’s just say it was more than satisfying. BMW X5 driven by my co-brother is not such a bad car, but the traffic made sure we went in the speed range comparable to the pit lane speed limits. I always wondered then, how it would be to drive on a purpose built F1 circuit. In this edition of Lost Track: Circuits of the Yore, I write about Dutch Grand Prix (in two parts), about the Circuit Park in Zandvoort where a race was completed without a single pit stop and notoriously known for few appalling deaths on track of the likes of Piers Courage who incidentally was born today a good 71 years ago and Roger Williamson (in Part II).

 The road trip to the country of Orange from Switzerland was breathtaking. Driving majorly through the limitless speed highways of Germany was filled with pleasure, thrill and excitement. I had made up my mind to visit Circuit Park at Zandvoort which is North of Holland at any cost, while we were at Netherlands. The idea was to just have a look at the F1 circuit and its surroundings. What followed is indeed interesting. I drove the Ford (hired rental) into the circuit and managed to complete an uninterrupted lap on the same. The timing was just perfect; the junior racing competition had just completed that evening and the track from the parking lot was open. I didn’t know what I was getting in to, and the next moment I found myself at the last corner, few meters from the start-finish line. The track was empty and barely could I see people around me. I was hesitant, but seconds later decided to just lay some rubber on the track. What followed is a lap to remember, that’s another story. 

Races began under the banner of Dutch Grand Prix in the late 1940’s. By the time F1 World Championship finished its 3rd year, the circuit at Zandvoort had made its way to the annual F1 calendar. The track which is just over 4 km long was dominated by the Ferrari powered engines driven by Alberto Ascari and won consecutively in its first two years. There was no race held in 1954 and the 1955 race was hosted just a week after the disastrous 1955 LeMans race which was tragically remembered for many spectator deaths. The Mercedes duo of Fangio and Moss was unbeatable as they won the race comfortably 1-2 in the 1955 race.

 The race did not return until the 1958 season by which time the focus in the paddock had entirely shifted to Stirling Moss from the legendary five times World Champion Fangio. Moss, under the shadow of Fangio for three years running finally had an opportunity to claim his maiden World Championships. He won the Dutch Grand Prix in his Vanwall but could not win the championships that year. He won four races that season, but was overhauled by a point. Mike Hawthorn who had just one victory the entire season won the driver’s crown by a solitary point and retired from racing at the end of that season.

 With emergence of Jack Brabham and other talented rookie drivers, Moss did not get enough opportunities and thus remained to this day the best driver never to have won driver’s World Championship.
Joakim Bonnier, the first Swedish driver to win a F1 race won it in 1959 which incidentally also happened to be his sole Grand Prix of his 15 year career in F1. The 1960 race saw the future two-time World Champion Jim Clark make his debut at Zandvoort but the race was marred by Dan Gurney’s unfortunate accident which resulted in killing of a spectator who at the time of the incident was in a prohibited zone. The race was won by the then reigning champion Jack Brabham. 

 The 1961 race saw a German winning a Grand Prix for the first time in F1. Wolfgang Von Trips in his Ferrari won the race. This race was the first time all drivers on the starting grid completed the race (since then it has happened in 2005 Italian GP and 2011 European GP) and even more interesting the 1961 race had no pit stops. Quite a contrast when you compare with the current season and complaints we hear on the number of pit stops.

 Graham Hill driving in a BRM won his first GP in 1962. In those years, each circuit in Europe took turns to be designated as the European Grand Prix. Dutch Grand Prix was to be known as ‘European GP’ in 1962. The next three years it was the dominant Jim Clark who took the top step of the podium. In those three years, Clark went on to win two World Championships.

 Ford Cosworth with its revolutionary design DFV (Double Four Valve) made its first appearance at the 1967 Grand Prix. The defending champion and the previous year winner Jack Brabham had no chance as Jim Clark went on to win his 4th Dutch GP. 

 By the time the season of 1968 began, the French race car constructor Matra had roped in the talented British driver Jackie Stewart. Jackie Stewart won the race and thereby gave the first victory to a French constructor in the history of F1. He also won the next year’s edition. The only posthumous World Champion in F1, Jochen Rindt won the race in 1970.

 It is not Jochen Rindt and his victory which people remember from the 1970 edition. A lot of them recall the race for the sad demise of Piers Courage who died after a crash on lap 22; the failed suspension causing the car to hit the curbs and the grass embankment. Earlier that season, Williams had opted to use the newly designed De Tomaso 505 through a business arrangement with Alessandro de Tomaso, rather than the tried-and-tested Brabham, for the 1970 season. The problems began to unfold due to the new design’s unreliability and overweight. For more than half of the season’s races, the team struggled to finish in points scoring positions. However, the entire team had high hopes just before the start of Dutch Grand Prix.

 Courage qualified in 9th position looked all set to improve from the failures of the previous races.
Twenty-three laps of the Grand Prix were down and by that time the Williams driver was in pursuit of Clay Regazzoni. The cars reached the Turn 8 of the circuit - Tunnel Oost; Courage’s front suspension of the car broke loose and went straight instead of turning to complete the bend.

 The scenes were very disturbing as the car somersaulted and exploded like a ball of fire. The car was lined heavily with Magnesium in suspension and chassis which made matters even worse. The flames from the car were so intense; trees surrounding the accident site were lit up as a result. During the impact, one of the wheels from the car hit Courage on his head, thereby breaking his helmet. From what I have read, he died on track due to sheer impact and from the head and neck injuries he sustained in the course of that crash. 

 He passed away just shy of one month after celebrating his 28th birthday leaving behind Sally Courage, his wife of four years and their two kids.

 Sir Frank Williams, Courage’s boss at that time summed up nicely in his foreword to a book titled - Piers Courage: Last of the Gentleman Racers written by renowned F1 expert Adam Cooper - "He was a great man, highly popular, and I remember clearly that when he died a nation grieved, as did all of us in Formula One at that time. He was the greatest fun, utterly charming. They don't make them like that anymore."

 People poured in their comments, consoled Courage's family. However in few days time, the life in the world of Grand Prix and F1 went on, knowing such incidents can happen to anyone. In the next part, I write about the races and the fall of Dutch Grand Prix post 1970. 

Saturday 25 May 2013

Anatomy of Indian Sports Governance

 Around the time of August in 2010, while I was working in Delhi at Commonwealth Games (CWG), i first witnessed the uneasiness surrounding the preparation of the games and competition. It was just the beginning, watching Times Now expose several irregularities; weeks before the games began and yet with each accusation surfaced the CWG went on. Personally, i credit the success of execution during Games time to the entire workforce who gave more than their best to ensure not all was bad. They just wanted to their job irrespective of the hurdles and each one deserved a medal for the efforts.

 The CWG incident summed up a quote from a T-shirt I had picked up in Delhi. The occasion was perfect to flaunt it; more than a personal statement, i felt the atmosphere was just right to wear the quoted tee. “Come to India, one billion people can’t go wrong” – the quote went something like that. It did catch many eyes and even got comments on that being a nice shirt. Yes, i knew the white round neck T-shirt of mine was good because of the quote. Such is the power of words, when used can create ripples. Alright, that might be a bit stretchy, but atleast it held attention. A lot of foreign work staff, including many of my colleagues were waiting for the games to be completed in order to rush back to their homes; for them the holiday of exploring India besides work was over. The constant scrutiny of the games was just too hot to handle coupled with the Delhi heat. The work culture of few people determined the way Indians worked in general. It was tough, but we went on.
Tantra's Shirt
 And so, CWG turned out to be the best ever India could manage with the resources and people we had at that time. Indian Athletes won medals, Delhi infrastructure improved slightly, a lot of the workforce got their life lessons and they moved on once the curtains were drawn to the event.

 Not all was pleasant after all and this was solely on the part of governance. Call it corruption, mismanagement or whatever that comes to one’s mind – it is all part of governance. I learnt a lesson or two in governance from the Commonwealth Games.

 The publicity the event gathered was in foreign media and mind you, even the non-commonwealth nations found it interesting. How a country with billion people can go wrong when it came to governing a sports event?  Well, it did and simply because India has no sporting tradition of hosting international events except for playing. There was never a priority from the Government to include Sports in their bucket list and rightly so. Even more appalling is the fact that, there were few attempts to change the mindset. I felt in 2003, hosting CWG will pave a way for all-round sports culture in India. Only few bricks were removed from the wall of bad governance and it magnified in 2010 when media was penetrative more than ever before.

 If only Olympic and non-cricket Sports had money, they would have been different. Allegations consistently on cricket administration was heard regularly, but it could manage as the game developed with better infrastructure and more money for the players. But the question of governance remained and remains untouched to this date.

 There were visionaries in Indian Sports setup but perished because of the system, as the might of rival faction was just too strong to counter. Very few start their professional careers thinking they will be corrupted for rest of their lives. The decision makers are honorary and hence unaccountable.

 The people (non-decision makers and paid staff) who chose to remain silent will be silenced forever and they will be in the setup only for the execution of the task. Though they don’t need to agree to a lot of things that happen, they earn their wages to survive in India. So the stage is set for the battle of egos. Simple men with vision are blindfolded forcefully or the victims choose to remain blindfolded only because they do need that ‘extra’ tension in their lives. Tell me, what are the odds of David winning against Goliath - One in ten?

Is it assuring to be with those nine men than wage a sole battle? It comes down to choice and the vision of an individual.

 Now, to governance part – I am open to an individual who can wear multiple hats as long as his intentions are clear and clean when it comes to decision making. Multiple hats dims one’s thought process in passing important regulations. Heading a sports organisation is a voluntary job and only established business men or a politician can easily don that hat. Why are such individuals voted into the system?

 Is it because of the influence they can generate among many Government, public and private sectors in getting the necessary permissions? Do they help athletes in securing a job in one of these sectors simply by their name appearing in the recommendation letter or by means of a humble phone call? While one cannot ignore these facts or benefits they provide for less privileged sports, my question is – Should such favours be made only if they head the organisations?

 The saga will continue but who will own the moral hat when there is suspicion. A leader is the one who steps down and comes back after proven innocent. Sadly, in India if the judicial process would be swift we could have seen many instances of people being suspended upon inquiry. I lament, it is not so. Hence we have the organisation heads refusing to step down and will go out only when forced out.

 Crisis is part of everyday life and so that doesn’t mean events must be stopped or banned. India went ahead with CWG for the sake of Sports alone, and two years later had a successful London Olympics (when compared with past Indian performances). Cricket too will move on amidst all this mess - But at what cost?

 I wish to see a day where the heads of the organisation communicate and state the facts ardently. Money and grants allocation for non-cricket sports can be made only if there is a willingness to create a plan for the Sports development. India is blessed with such a population that many private establishments are getting involving in development of sports. Yes, India is a land of more than one billion and not all of them will be wrong. But those few who create such ‘wrong perception’ come from the influential and political category and that is the worrying sign. Private firm can do only much unless there is the administration heads of sports work with alacrity.

 Will there be smart administrators who can look beyond and interpret rightly the Buddha’s saying of ‘Living in Present’? Coz, acknowledging and solving the present problems can only help the Sports Industry better. 

Thursday 23 May 2013

Perils of Indian Cricket Administration

Last week, Cricket made headlines (again) for illegal activities concerning spot-fixing. A two-time World Cup winner, a first-class cricketer and a club cricketer all playing for the same franchise Rajasthan Royals were accused, taken to custody, their contracts suspended, banned and the investigations are still on. Not so long ago, in 2000 this game discovered the term match-fixing being added to its glossary. Spot-fixing is the latest addition.
 Illegal by its widely accepted definition is “Prohibited by law or by official or accepted rules”. While the connotations and the usage are unparalleled in today’s world, illegal is also a situation where there is a degree of punishment when a personnel or a firm involved.

 A lot of noise is heard at the moment in India; with social media easily accessible to public, the news is viral and with each passing hour there are updates and more dirt being unearthed. What is the truth? I ask this question each time when such allegations threaten to disrupt a sport, let alone be cricket. Quel dommage!

 Individuals or a collection of individuals may be playing for the same team, but their personalities are different. Just as their skill sets are unique, their sociological background and their vision towards life are varied. This is what team sports are made up of – a bunch of idiosyncratic athletes coming together with a simple purpose and a common goal – to win. It is their profession and like any other profession, sport is no different. Win at all costs is the mantra; losing at all costs?

 Losing is a constant part of the game; if done deliberately you discredit the effort put in by your peers and opposition. Cricket like many other games evolved from being a recreational sport to the present day business establishment. There are contracts, employee agreements and commitments which is necessary to fulfill.

 The business over recreation in its modern avatar became very evident in cricket with the advent of T20 cricket and since the conception of Indian Premier League (IPL). Board of Control of Cricket in India (BCCI) in partnership with International Management Group (IMG) drew the league structure for IPL in 2008.

 Currently, IPL is in its sixth edition and barring the first season; each season had its share of controversies. This is nothing new for the tournament that unites the best of international cricketers from around the world for a good part of ten weeks. The teams are owned by well-known business magnates and few of the famous Indian movie celebrities. State Associations of Cricket are involved in tandem with BCCI and team owners as they provide the playing facilities, while the sponsors who pump in money to these franchises also play an important role. Not to forget, amidst all this, there are local Indian cricketers and umpires who are given a platform of their lives to showcase their respective talents to the global audience.

 With deals in the tune of millions of dollars for TV rights, Mobile rights, League Sponsorship this is easily one of the top leagues in the world when it comes to money involved. So with a short introduction to IPL, the basic question remains unanswered or I might say skewed. What is the purpose of IPL - Is it to promote cricket? Money?  To showcase cricketer’s talents?  To remain in the limelight or is it a cocktail of all the above factors?

 BCCI’s objective is simple – To make money from cricket and to utilise that money to promote cricket across the country. What about other stake holders? Their involvement in IPL is simple too -Win matches, increase their presence in the social circles and add IPL as an extension to their well established businesses. While this is true for owners, a lot of companies utilise IPL to showcase their products through advertisements and sponsorship. IPL is not merely for cricket, it is entertainment, business, money and fame with cricket as its vital ingredient.

 With cricket as the vital ingredient, it is the onus on the governing body BCCI in the lead with ICC as a indirect partner to take the moral responsibility for the smooth running of the league. India as a political nation is divided by region, language and caste politics. Indian cricket has them all - BCCI is the only organisation that had and has representatives from all the major political parties across India consistently in its governing body. With such a powerful network, it is perhaps explained why this unity can fail and is deemed ineffective when it comes to tackling or checking illegal activities or resolving conflicts of interests. That is the flip side of being democratic in an organisation where the rules can be skewed and altered easily while none of it all is explained in lay man’s language.

 What can BCCI do? While the responsibility of integrity rests with the individual athletes, BCCI can consider this latest fiasco to lead by example and demonstrate its might to educate the upcoming cricketers, strengthen its laws, rewrite it such that there is no scope for misinterpretation and finally look beyond money and take care of Indian cricket that lays the golden eggs.

 BCCI with its increased reach, stronger and deeper than the Indian Olympic Committee can set examples to other athletes in matters related to match-fixing, spot-fixing, doping, mentoring and faking age in junior cricket. While many of the cricketers earn good money by playing cricket, the present generation needs monitoring and the future generations to come needs education on the ill-traps of sport. BCCI needs to control cricket from playing and administrative aspects such that there are clear, well defined laws and rules to tackle such aforementioned issues.

Will they? Time can only answer. 

Monday 6 May 2013

Lost Track: Circuits of the Yore XI - Dallas Grand Prix

One of the rare sights I have ever seen in F1 is the sight of a driver pushing his car to the chequered flag. These days, such a situation is rare. From what I have seen in the video archives and read in several articles, pushing a car was a normal thing to do for many drivers in the past, even more so when they were close to the finishing line.
In this edition of Lost Track: Circuits of the Yore, I am looking back at the solitary race that took place at  a track where Nigel Mansell - after securing his first pole position, having driven a steady race fell unconscious due to exhaustion and dehydration near the start-finish line, while he attempted valiantly to race completion pushing his car.

Last year, United States hosted a Grand Prix in the state of Texas at Austin. It became an interesting race for many of the teams as drivers struggled with tyres because of relatively cooler conditions, as it took time for all the racers to warm up with new tyres. This is in contrast with the issues faced when the state of Texas first hosted a Formula One race. It was in the year 1984 at Fair Park, a 277-acre recreational and educational complex located in Dallas were hosts to a Grand Prix.

Dallas in a bid to demonstrate as ‘World class city’ hosted this race and the track was a street circuit of length just short of 4 km.  The circuit itself was not conducive for overtaking and the drivers had to rely on their sharp instincts to negotiate more than one sharp turn. With just two hairpin bends and short straights, this race was a challenge to the best of the drivers. Challenge is what champions thrive on, but this time they had an external challenge too – the hot weather.

The race was scheduled in the season where the summer was at its peak in Dallas. Commitments had been made and the commercialisation had just started in F1. Any new international venue was welcomed and at the same time attractive to the business of F1. And moreover, Bernie Eccelestone and FOCA were trying to find a home ground in North America.

There was no enthusiasm on the part of several teams to race under extreme heat than normal conditions which they were quite adapted to. Mind you, this was a street circuit and the heat did not help matters to the concrete laid on the public roads at Fair Park. After the Friday practice, there were noises to be heard complaining about the circuit, especially concerning the track being bubbly. Nelson Piquet, the then defending champion was most vocal – he wondered which among the three would break first; cars, the drivers or the track itself. In the end it turned out to be all the three at different times of the race.

Martin Brundle became the first of the casualties when he crashed his Tyrell into a barrier. He broke both his knees and spent rest of the race and season recuperating from that horrific accident. The battle for the championship was between the McLaren teammates – Nikki Lauda and Alain Prost, with Prost leading the championship. Under extreme hot conditions, the Lotus pair Nigel Mansell and Elio de Angelis secured 1-2 for the race. Ferrari was struggling but they did put up a good show as the Frenchman Rene Arnoux came fourth while the Renault powered car driven by Derek Warwick was to start from the third. The McLaren duo had to be content with five and seven on the grid sandwiched by Aryton Senna, who incidentally was in his rookie year.

With complaints about the heat becoming a threat to cancel this race, the organisers had agreed the race would begin at 11 am on Sunday and the practice was scheduled for 7 am. For few drivers this was way too early for scheduling a practice. Jacques Laffite, the French driver for Williams was in his pyjamas when he arrived at the circuit instead of overalls and helmet. Due to the damage made by the Can-Am racing the previous day, the practice was cancelled and instead the organisers were busy fixing up the circuit. The track was showing some degree of degradation and this called for fresh protests from the drivers led by Nikki Lauda and Alain Prost before the start. Who likes to lay on the line, the championships and more importantly the safety of the drivers?

With 80,000 disappointed fans at stake and the overall image of F1, there was no way the race would have been cancelled. Jimmy Carter, ex-US President was one among the elite celebrities who were invited for the race. Larry Hagman (Capt. Tony Nelson in I Dream of Jeannie and J.R. Ewing in Dallas) waved the green flag to start the ninth round of the 1984 season.

The retirements started from the first lap and as the race (which began minutes after the track was repaired) progressed there were many added to this list. With heat taking a toll on driver’s concentration, there were errors made which costed the race for few drivers. Nigel Mansell could not sustain his lead, made a mistake by hitting the wall and thereby lost his position to Keke Rosberg. Keke Rosberg who had started the race from 8th on the grid was unstoppable just after half-way through the race. There were moments when Alain Prost looked good to win the race before he made an error and the lead and with it the race was once again for Rosberg’s to lose. After close to two hours of racing in extreme hot conditions, the Finn won the race, one lap short of the total laps. The drama wasn’t over – Nigel Mansell who had to settle for fifth position ran out of fuel on the last lap.  Mansell, out of his car started pushing the car to the finish line and in the process collapsed on the track out of exhaustion. He finished sixth out of eight drivers who managed to stay on the track till the end. 

Incidentally, Rosberg’s pace was so exemplary coupled with race attrition, he won it by a margin of approximately 23 seconds of Rene Arnoux, who finished 2nd in a Ferrari. The rest of the cars (six of them) were all behind Rosberg and Rene Arnoux by a lap or more. In a traditional Texan style, Rosberg wearing a Stetson hat looked relieved and visibly very fresh. It was later known to public that Rosberg had invested close to $2000 for a special designed water-cooled helmet, which did play a crucial role in keeping his head cool amidst chaos and heat during the race.
The Grand Prix in Dallas was a one-off event. With a narrow track lots of concrete falling apart, cars colliding with the protected fencing than ever seen in a previous F1 race and the heat (though this could have been worked out) were just too big reasons to be ignored and have teams visit the place next year. This race was replaced by the Australian Grand Prix in 1985 at the street circuit of Adelaide.